The Life of a Dog: Nasty, Brutish and Short

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An installment from my memoir: Life After Leukemia

My dad died ten years ago. He missed both of my ordeals with leukemia. That’s a good thing, because I think he would have worried himself into an illness of his own over it. That’s how he was with my brother and me. He took on everything that happened to us, turned it over in his mind every which way imaginable to find a solution and, when he realized there was nothing he could do, he would lie awake at night fretting about it. He did this over the little things that we came up against; I can only imagine how he would have suffered needlessly on my behalf over this major illness.

Dad and I had a complicated relationship—he just didn’t know it. I never confronted him with my feelings about his treatment of us when I lived at home. I won’t go into details; I’ll just say he never struck any of us—not even a swat on the butt, as far as I remember—and I firmly believe that he loved me and was proud of me. He was also a wonderful grandfather and treated my wife with the kind of tenderness usually reserved for a daughter. I have many good memories of times spent with him, and I do miss being able to talk with him. I’ll leave it at that.

I wrote the following story in 2008 while I was recovering from my first treatments. The Phillies had just won the World Series, and I was wishing that I could celebrate with him. Like me, he was a life-long fan or, more accurately, I was a fan, just like him. Everything I like about sports and every team I follow is a result of the early years I spent with him. This story took place in one of those early years:

My father left a clear impression of our early years together. Strong and barrel-chested from years of hard work in the mines and on the family farm, he was my strength and protector. As I got older, I came to realize that he had traits that I didn’t want to emulate, but during those early years he could do no wrong in my eyes. He worked as a truck driver, delivering coal from the mines, which were several miles to the north of us, to local breakers. There it was crushed into various sizes.

Some days he would stop and invite me to be a passenger on his next trip to the mine. Nothing was sweeter than sitting up high in that ten-wheel dump truck, watching him shift through all those gears and navigate the winding roads that passed by the strip mines. Sometimes he would drive close to the edge and I would get a thrill looking straight into the depth of those manmade canyons. I’m sure I was wide-eyed with fear just then, but I trusted that he wouldn’t let anything bad happen to me…and he never did.

When we reached the mine, I entered into a foreign landscape where only a few scraggly bushes were allowed to grow. Piles of coal dirt and shale smothered any other growth; there was hardly a hint of any natural beauty. All of the roads and paths were made of black, powdery coal. There was a small shanty, in which all of the winches, gears, and wheels moved in tandem to hoist the sled full of coal from the slanted hole that reached deep into the mountain. This was no strip mine. The men who worked down there entered each morning on the same cart that brought the coal to the surface. This was no place for the claustrophobic. Down below, the men dug tunnels and shored them with timbers, hoping they would hold…sometimes they didn’t. My dad’s brother had been crushed by a large rock in one of these hell-holes a few years earlier, leaving behind a wife and two young sons. While there were dangers here that often equated to a combat zone, there were no flag-draped coffins and twenty-one gun salutes for these men when they didn’t survive. And if they did, they could look forward to a life of small paychecks and miner’s asthma.

But none of this was apparent to me back then. I was mesmerized by everything that went on there. It was a frenzy of activity with trucks pulling in to get their fill of coal and leaving again to parts unknown. Every so often a loud bell would ring in the shanty, signaling that the sled was ready to be retrieved. Soon the large pulley wheel above the shanty would start turning as the cable ran over it and the coal sled began its journey to the surface.

 I was not allowed to step into the shanty—too much danger there for a careless little boy—but once, when no one was paying attention, I stuck my head inside to see what I was missing. Well, it was just like I was told: a large spool on which the sled cable wound and unwound was just inside the door. There were enormous gears, none covered by the safety guards which would be required by OSHA today. And one other thing was in there: although of no danger to me physically, the pictures of naked ladies that hung from all four walls surely must have created more than a little psychological damage to my young mind. Actually, at five years of age, I may have been aware that this was some naughty entertainment that adult men enjoyed, but I definitely did not know why it was enjoyable. It would be a few more years until some of the older boys in my neighborhood took me under their wings and put images into my head—mostly about my parents–that I still haven’t completely cleared out. And speaking of images, my father was responsible for one that affected me much more than the lovely ladies of the shanty.

One evening over supper—around this same time period—he was telling my mom an apparently hilarious story, since he had to stop a few times until his laughter subsided. Now, on most occasions I tuned out their conversations—I didn’t know what they were talking about, nor did I usually care–but with all of the laughter and enthusiasm with which he related this event, I listened in:

It seemed there had been a stray dog hanging around the shanty at the mine for the last week or so. The guys who worked there befriended him and fed him scraps from their lunches, and the truckers who stopped in did the same. He had become sort of a mascot and was even given a name—Coal Hole Dog. It would seem that he had found a happy home until one day he ventured too close to the moving spool and was last seen traveling up the cable in pieces.

I never discovered why my dad found this tragic event so funny, but I grieved for that poor dog for many days. My mother, who unabashedly loved animals, did not see the humor, either. Maybe my dad had a keener sense of irony than we did or simply a darker sense of humor. But if someone could have captured that moment at the supper table in a photo, it would have shown an attractive woman and a small boy with shocked looks staring incredulously at a man who was red-faced and teary-eyed from laughter.

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